Sorry if this confuses anyone. I've been looking through what I have, mapping out what I haven't written yet, etc. A few changes. . . Rose is now Laurel. I wanted a different name for her. I also changed a few minor things; I don't think they should affect the story too much. So you can decide whether you want to re-read or not, if you've already read the first few chapters.

All this means that I'm hoping to get back into the swing of writing again, especially since the kids will be starting school in a few weeks. :) Well, two of them. My toddler will still be at home, and in the fall, Baby will make his appearance! So we'll see how that affects my writing. :-/ Hopefully not negatively. :)

Chapter One

Katarina Renner stepped quickly through the door of Clark's General Store, glad to escape the driving wind that promised rain. Finding her bonnet to be slightly askew, she set it evenly on her head before proceeding to the counter to inquire after the order that Mary had placed.

As she waited for the storekeeper to finish assisting the woman with three squirming children in line before her, Katarina glanced around the store to see what new merchandise had come in. Nearby was the fabric and notion section. She knew that the many beautiful and colorful patterns were too costly for her family.

Her brother Carl had been running the farm by himself for three years now, but last summer, he had married. Mary was a kind woman, the sort of sister-in-law that every girl hoped eventually to have. However, even with Carl doing the majority of the work and Ben, eighteen, helping a great deal, they were still barely bringing in enough to keep the farm going. There were plenty of hands to work the fields, even with Andrew and Jonathan, both of whom were fourteen, headed to a boarding secondary school in a nearby city. Carl and Ben were more than able to finish the work. However, with so many people in their family, and the expense of burying their parents, sending the twins to school, as was their mother and father's wishes, along with all the mouths to feed, there were little funds for anything aside from the necessities. Dorcas was the youngest sibling, at ten years old, and she was able to help Mary with the house work. Sometimes Katarina felt that she was not at all needed.

The youngest child in front of Katarina broke from his older sister's grasp and began to run. He stopped, though, when he barreled right into Katarina's legs. He stared up at her, wide-eyed. She smiled down at him and leaned over to look him in the face.

"I think your momma wants you to stay with her, sweetie." She gave him a nudge on the back and he returned to the other woman's side, peering shyly over his shoulder on occasion while the transaction was completed. Katarina smiled at him.

Katarina returned to her previous thoughts. Sometimes she wished that she had a suitor; then she might marry, help where she really was needed, and there would be another man in the family to help Carl and Ben during harvest, if she were to marry a farmer. With a sigh, she broke out of her momentary fantasy and admitted that this would not be likely to happen. Not only were none of the young men in the area interested in her, but she was too shy and tongue-tied around most of them to give anyone the slightest indication that she was open to a suit.

The woman with the three children left, and Katarina stepped up to the counter, only to realize that the kindly if occasionally absent-minded Mrs. Clark had left the counter and been replaced by her daughter Laurel. Katarina and Laurel had been school-mates, with Laurel being one year younger than Katarina's nineteen years. While Laurel was certainly a lovely young woman to look at, Katarina had felt more than enough of her thorns when the two were in school together. She steeled herself for the encounter she knew would not be entirely pleasant.

"Good morning, Laurel," Katarina greeted. The floor behind the counter was elevated at least six inches from the floor on which customers stood. Still, Katarina was taller than Laurel by several inches.

"Oh good morning. What do you need?" Before Katarina could do more than open her mouth to respond, Laurel continued, "It is so tiresome working here. Mama is preparing High Tea, to share with Mrs. Quimby, our own Mayor's wife. Can you believe that? High Tea actually being served in this little place. Back in Boston, we had High Tea every day. But here it's all work, work, work. But I suppose you wouldn't know anything about the finer things in life, you being born and raised here and all. I can't imagine anything interesting coming from this little community, except maybe that Freddie Bachmeier. He's twenty-one, did you know? I gave him a handkerchief with his initials on it that I stitched for him. At any rate, he was born and raised here, and he might be enough to convince me to stay in this little town. If he gives up farming. Heavens! I could never live and work on a farm. I can't stand this work. Let alone a farm! But Freddie is a dream and I could be enticed to stay here if he came to work in Papa's store."

Katarina wondered why Laurel would share such personal thoughts with her and decided to speak up when the other young lady paused for breath. "I came to see if Mary's buttons were in." She needed Laurel to give her the buttons so she could get out of the store; it seemed to be suffocating her suddenly. There is absolutely no reason that I should resent her having set her bonnet for Fritz. He's a good friend of our family, of Carl, and I should want to see him happily married to a beautiful woman. Katarina sighed. But to Laurel? It would break his heart to give up farming.

As Laurel turned with a flounce to retrieve the buttons, Katarina heard the bell above the door ring. She glanced over her shoulder and felt her breath catch at the sight of wind-blown straw-blonde hair and bright blue eyes. The man himself had just walked into the store. I'm just embarrassed for his sake and for Laurel's, Katarina thought as she felt her face flush. To think that she was going on so! She took a deep breath to help calm her nerves as he approached.

Frederick Bachmeier couldn't help but grin when he saw Katarina at the counter. Her hair was covered by a bonnet, but he did not need to see it in order to know that her dark blonde tresses were wound in braids about her head. He did not need anything from the store, but had come looking for her. The good Lord was certainly helping things along today. Not only had her brother been already thinking along the same lines as he was, but now he had the perfect opportunity to talk to Katarina about it. His long, lanky strides quickly carried him to the side of the store where Katarina waited, apparently on the buttons that Mary had ordered to refashion some of their mother's old dresses for Dorcas.

"Mornin', Kitty." Growing up, they had all called each other by familiar pet names and as young adults often fell into the same pattern. Katarina returned his greeting with what he thought was a slightly shaky smile. He was reassured when he looked at her midnight-blue eyes and saw their corners crinkle with her smile. It was genuine. "Just came from your place. Mary said she's planning on makin' some new dresses for Dorrie for school next year."

"Well, new to Dorrie; she's using two of Mama's old dresses."

"Do you regret that?" Frederick knew that Katarina had always been close to her mother.

"No, Mama would have wanted them to be used. I have enough serviceable dresses, as does Mary. Poor Dorrie grew out of her dresses halfway through the school term. She really needs new ones; we let her old ones out, as much as we could, but they're still a bit short. I'm hoping to save to buy some nice material for a new Sunday dress for her birthday."

Just then Laurel came back, smiling coyly when she saw Frederick. He knew that she claimed to be sweet on him. While the male in him was flattered that a beautiful girl fancied him, Frederick knew that she was just a beautiful girl and nothing more. She did not care about other people except when it suited her, she only made friends for the benefit that they were to her, and was rude and sometimes even cruel to those who did not fall all over her.

"Good morning, Freddie." He winced at the nickname. "How are you this fine spring day? We all know what Lord Tennyson wrote about the spring and a young man's fancy." Laurel tossed the bag of buttons in Katarina's direction then leaned over the counter toward Frederick, batting her eyelashes at him.

Annoyed at her boldness, Frederick quickly slipped his arm around Katarina's slim waist, ignoring the fact that he was being rather bold himself. "Indeed I do. Even if the weather's less than ideal, I feel as though the sun is shining brightly." He tightened his grasp, pulling Katarina flush against his side. He didn't want to look at Katarina's face for fear of what registered there. Besides, she had ducked her head and her bonnet's brim hid her features from his eyes. "Mary already paid for those, didn't she? Good. Come, Kitty, I'll see you home. Good day, Miss Laurel."

Frederick tipped his hat in Laurel's direction and steered Katarina out of the store and to the hitching post where his horse waited.

"Goodness, Fritz," Katarina breathed as she stepped away from him. Her face was flushed a becoming pink and her deep blue eyes had darkened even further in confusion. "I know you only wanted to discourage her, but couldn't it have been a bit more subtle, at least where I was concerned? By sunset, the whole town will be buzzing that we're . . . well, you know . . ."

Enjoying her discomfort more than perhaps he should, Frederick grinned. "No, I don't. What?"

"Oh you! Frederick Bachmeier, please take me home at once. You are going to get it once my brother hears about this." Frederick's only response was an enigmatic little smile.

Seated behind Frederick on his horse Hans, a large bay with a gleaming brown coat and shimmering ebony mane and tail, Katarina felt extremely uncomfortable. Her discomfort, however, did not stem from being on the large animal. They had ridden together many times before, chasing her brothers over the fields, riding back from town after the church picnic, delivering a message from Fritz's parents that the elder Renner siblings were staying for supper.

This time riding, Katarina could not recall a comfortable position for her hands. It felt entirely too intimate to be hugging this boy-turned-man. Of course, she knew she was being a ninny. It was all of Laurel's talk that had made her forget that this was the same boy with whom she had grown up. I just don't remember his shoulders being so wide, or him being so tall. Not short at five feet, nine inches, Katarina felt dwarfed next to his frame when he tucked her neatly against his side back in the store. The mere memory heated her cheeks. Stop thinking about that! This is all Laurel's fault!

Just then, Frederick steered Hans off of the country road headed toward their farms. He followed a winding trail that they had often followed before, that lead to a small brook. Perhaps he wants to water his horse. Though with the wind and those clouds closing in on us, I cannot fathom why it can't wait until we reach the house.

Inside the shelter of the small woods, much of the wind was unable to reach them. Hans approached the brook and Frederick threw his leg over the horse's neck and slid to the ground in once graceful movement. He reached up with strong arms to help Katarina down from the saddle.

"Kitty, mind if I talk to you a bit?" he asked, leading her gently by the arm to a large outcropping of rock beside the stream.

"Not at all, Fritz. You know you can tell me anything." Katarina did her best to offer a small smile. Just last week, she had been in to the general store and Laurel had been telling her how sometimes a gentleman would feign interest in another lady in hopes that the lady who truly held his heart would notice him. From the tone of Frederick's voice, Katarina was worried that he wanted to speak to her of something important. Something like marriage. Specifically, marriage to Miss Laurel Clark.

"I know, Kitty, but this might feel a bit awkward, as I'm not sure what your feelings are." Frederick gently took her hand in his.

"What have my feelings to do with anything?" she wondered.

"Well, I imagine they should at least be considered," laughed Frederick. "I suppose I ought to start at the beginning." He paused before continuing with an ernest expression on his handsome face. When did he lose the boyish roundness? His face is all angles and planes now. "I know that Carl and Ben are struggling with the farm's finances. And with planting season so close, I'm rather short-handed. I could help. I do, already, I know, but were we bound by more than friendship, perhaps something deeper, then there is more I could do. Beyond what is seen as proper between friends."

He paused, as though waiting for Katarina to voice her thoughts. After a moment, she murmured, "That is well and good, Frederick, but I cannot understand what I have to do with-"

"Marry me." Frederick's usually unwavering gaze actually faltered and his eyes dropped to the place that her hands rested in her lap. He wrapped his large, warm hands around both of hers and looked back up into her eyes. "I could help your brothers with their harvest. Your family would become my family. You know my parents are gone, as are yours. I have no one, but ample resources. Your family is rich in love and care for one another. I think that this arrangement would benefit us both."

Katarina tore her eyes from his blue ones to gaze over the small, meandering brook. This place had been a refuge for the both of them as children. It was a place that she often came to contemplate things or to pray. It was where Frederick had found her, tear-stained face and all, after her parents had succumbed to influenza. And now it was the place that Frederick had proposed marriage.

Katarina desperately wanted to ask why he made no mention of love or even affection. Upon further reflection, however, what would he say? She was certain that he looked at her as one would a sister, not a lover. That was how she had seen him until very, very recently. It was not even an hour since she first began to notice him as a man. Even as she sat beside him, as he awaited her answer, she did not know whether her love for him had developed beyond the brotherly affection she had always harbored for him.

Still, who else would want her? She was not past her prime, not really, though many girls were married much younger than she. Even so, no one else was coming calling and even if they were, she was awkward and uncomfortable unless the man was a family member. Frederick counted as a family member. Or he did until recently.

Thinking back, though, to her brothers working the farm and how she was merely an extra mouth to feed, Katarina knew her decision, even if she was unsure of her heart and of Frederick's.

"Yes, Frederick. I'll marry you."

For a short time, Katarina thought Frederick feelings might have been more tender toward her than she'd suspected. His face broke out into a blindingly bright grin and a joyful laugh came from his lips. Soon, though, he suddenly cleared his throat, nodding and turning his expression to be more serious. "Very well, Katarina. I'm glad. Let's, uh, let's go tell your brother."

Katarina nodded, accepted his help from her seat on the rock, and followed him toward his horse. All the while, she wondered if she had just agreed to a loveless marriage.